Author and longtime meditator Maia Duerr wandered through several professions and dozens of jobs (including alfalfa sprout packer and Buddhist chaplain) before she finally unlocked a combination of work that was deeply fulfilling and sustainable. These experiences provided her with rich material to examine the emotional, psychological, and cultural barriers to creating work that expressed her life’s core intention, what she calls “Liberation-Based Livelihood.”
Work is one of the primary vehicles for expressing our deepest selves. Using the 6 Keys to Liberation-Based Livelihood as a framework, Duerr takes readers through a comprehensive process that can lead to breakthroughs and positive reformulation of their careers. Mindfulness practice is an invaluable tool in the process of gaining new perspective. Work That Matters gives you the tools to create joyful work that embodies love and compassion—for yourself, and for the whole world.
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About the Author
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A Love Story about Work
The work of the world is common as mud. Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust. But the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident. Greek amphoras for wine or oil, Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums but you know they were made to be used. The pitcher cries for water to carry and a person for work that is real.
— Marge Piercy
I'm ten years old and sitting at the dining room table with Mom waiting for Dad to come home from work. He's always late. By the time he sits down to dinner, the food has cooled off, despite Mom's best attempts to keep it warm. Once the mealtime conversation starts, much of it revolves around Dad's discontent with his job. He feels perpetually overworked and stays long hours to try to catch up — hence his tardiness to dinner. He complains endlessly about his boss. I sit there and witness my Dad's unhappiness and feel heartbroken. And I wonder ... does it have to be this way?
My father worked as a travel counselor for the American Automobile Association, a job he chose because of his own love of travel. He was the guy who would give you maps for your vacation and point out the things you shouldn't miss along with the way, like the amazing natural rock bridge in Utah that nobody else knew about, or the quirky motel in Nevada that doubled as a peacock farm.
Dad spent all his time and energy planning other people's trips but rarely had time to take one himself. It seemed to me that he lived only for his vacation time — two weeks a year, the standard amount of annual vacation in the United States. He held that job for more than thirty years until he finally retired in his late sixties.
My dad's experience and perspective were not unusual. Most of my friends' parents had similarly limited time off and expressed the same sentiments. As I grew up and then got my first job, the general consensus among my friends was that work was something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
Early on, I vowed that my life would be different, that I would do whatever it took not simply to tolerate my work but to find joy in it. I wanted my livelihood to be a vehicle for my personal and spiritual growth, and a way for me to give something back to the world. This vow has led me on a wild and woolly adventure over the past thirty years through at least five careers and twenty jobs (and I am being conservative in these estimates). Over this period of time, some of the positions I've held (or created) have included the following:
Kentucky Fried Chicken counterperson
alfalfa sprout packer
mental health counselor
nonprofit executive director
How in the world do I make sense out of that list? While I do feel some pride in all these job adventures and the fact that I haven't followed a conventional path, sometimes I look at this list and wonder, "What the hell am I doing with my life?" I wonder if I've skimmed the surface of too many occupations without staying in something long enough to be an "expert." Sometimes I envy people who seem to know exactly what they want to do when they were ten years old and then stay on a steady trajectory to become a doctor or lawyer or something else more clearly defined. This clearly has not been my path.
At times, I still fall into the trap of comparing myself to folks like that and buy into social expectations about what a career "should" look like. When that happens it can be easy to feel like a "failure." But with a positive reframe, I realize that I'm actually a Renaissance woman with diverse skills, and that I've made these career changes over the years in response to the changing circumstances of my life as well as growing clarity about what I'm here on the planet to offer.
I'm not alone in this pattern. The new world of work is a very different environment from the one in which my father grew up. According to a 2015 study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, each of us will hold 11.7 jobs over our lifetime. On average, a US worker has been in his or her current job 4.4 years — a dramatic drop from the 1970s, when it wasn't unusual for people to have careers that lasted fifteen or twenty years.
It turns out that creating a career in the twenty-first century is less about a job title and more about the life mission that we've discerned for ourselves. As author and business coach Pamela Slim writes, "The new world of work requires a new lens and skill set to ensure career success. ... When you view your career through the lens of an overarching body of work, you know the deeper roots that connect your entire work and life experience."
When I reflect on my own body of work, I see that the first time I began to apply this kind of lens came near the end of career number one as a mental health worker. The younger version of me thought I had done everything "right" in setting up that career. I chose to pursue a bachelor's degree in music therapy because that seemed in line with what I thought I should be doing: helping people. The musical part of my job added a creative twist, which was also in tune with my personality. What could go wrong?
I started out as a music therapist in a Connecticut state psychiatric hospital. After three years in that job, I worked in various other positions in the mental health system. It took me ten years before I was finally able to acknowledge how unhappy I was doing that work. Not all of it — I loved engaging with my patients and clients, yet even these interactions could be challenging and stressful. But as time went on, I became disillusioned by the failings of a system that was charged with caring for people's mental health but often did exactly the opposite and proved toxic to almost everyone involved: patients, their families, and staff. In addition, I felt frustrated and constrained by the way in which my jobs affected the structure of my life. (Showing up at 8:00 a.m. every day? An hour-long commute to work? Please. ...)
But the thought of letting it all go and doing something else was terrifying. After all, I had invested ten years of my life in this profession, and I was getting paid pretty well. I watched as my colleagues took the next logical step and became supervisors and administrators, some of them going back to school for an MSW or PhD. In the mental health profession this was the conventional career track.
I looked at MSW programs and started to apply for a few of them. Yet something inside me resisted mightily and I couldn't even finish the applications. I was at war with myself. What it took to finally step out of this war zone was an honest recognition of how depleted I was — physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Out of desperation, I started making a list of the things I truly enjoyed doing, activities that brought me happiness. I had an idea that this might give me a clue about my next career step.
My list included the following:
meeting people from different cultures
listening to people's stories
The seeds of these things that I loved to do were present in my mental health positions. Working with patients with psychiatric disabilities and in extreme emotional states was similar in some ways to being with people from another culture, as I had to step out of myself and learn to understand their unique ways of navigating the world. I also had to write up clinical notes after each visit or session. But rather than simply bearing witness to another's story and holding space for their healing, I was part of a team that would give them a diagnosis such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. This label might result in helping them access treatment, but more often than not became a source of stigma (and too often the treatments were ineffective and even harmful). All of this was eating away at me.
I made a number of efforts to figure out if there was a career path better suited to me. I read books like What Color is Your Parachute? and Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow. I went to a career counselor and took aptitude tests. (The results of one test indicated I should be a lawyer, which I doubt would have been a good move for me!) Each of these strategies offered a few helpful insights, but something wasn't clicking on a deeper level.
At some point during that period of intense questioning, when I was in my early thirties, I had the good fortune of participating in a retreat on Whidbey Island, Washington. One of the retreat faculty was Dr. Angeles Arrien, an inspiring cultural anthropologist and writer. One day I found time to have an individual conversation with Dr. Arrien. As we walked amidst the emerald green fields of the retreat center, she encouraged me to look into the graduate program that she had cofounded in San Francisco. Something inside me lit up as I reviewed my list of "things I love" and realized that each of them was related to things an anthropologist might do. I had absolutely no idea how one would make a living as an anthropologist — the only role model I could think of was the hopelessly stereotyped, unrealistic image of Indiana Jones — but I was willing to take a big leap to get myself out of the work-related suffering I had been stuck in for so long.
It also helped to have encouragement from friends who could see how dissatisfied I was and who knew I had gifts to offer that weren't being expressed through my work.
That combination — identifying my gifts, being exposed to other possibilities, receiving encouragement, being willing to make a leap — made a big shift possible. (As you may notice, they are also an early version of the 6 Keys that you'll explore in this book.)
At thirty-two years old, I finally had the courage and clarity to end my ten-year career in mental health, and I entered the Social and Cultural Anthropology Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco. Sometimes I think of this decision as my "Hail Mary pass," as it took a tremendous leap of faith as well as finances. I had saved a bit of money but had to take out a great deal of student loans to make graduate school possible.
During that period of time, I also started a meditation practice, first with Roshi Joan Halifax (whom I met when she taught a course on Buddhism, Shamanism, and Deep Ecology at CIIS), and then with Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh's Community of Mindful Living sangha in the San Francisco Bay Area. Sangha is a Sanskrit word that means "community"; in Buddhism, people recognize that individuals need a group of like-minded friends around them to make progress on a spiritual path. The combination of study at CIIS and my entry into meditation provided me with a new way of viewing the world and practices to help stabilize my mind and open my heart.
That experience of making a major career change provided the seeds for what later became an online course called "Fall in Love with Your Work," which I created in 2012. My mindfulness practice has provided a foundation of self-awareness from which I can make choices about work that are informed by wisdom rather than reactivity. This is the same process I will share with you in this book.
Through my own mindful inquiry over the past decade, I discovered that the myriad jobs I've held are all actually a manifestation of one thing, my Core Intention: a deep desire to help people discover their passions and connect with one another. (Though I'm not sure how the alfalfa sprout job would fit with this!) You'll learn more about how to find your own Core Intention in chapter 4.
Once my Core Intention became clear, I felt a tremendous sense of relief. It was as though the numbers on a padlock all clicked into place, unlocking a clarity that has helped me to seek out increasingly fulfilling work opportunities. I no longer felt in danger of becoming like my father and seeing work as something to be endured rather than enjoyed.
As I've become more conscious of my Core Intention, I've strengthened my ability to align my work with it. I've also learned how to think "out of the box" and not rely on anyone else's definition of "job" to limit how I do this. The outcome has been fascinating and not where I ever thought I would end up. I've created a livelihood with which I support people to "discover" and "connect" by doing the things I love to do the best: listening, writing, teaching, and facilitating others' success. In the process, I have connected with my own source of joy.
Our time on this planet is short, and work is one of the primary vehicles for expressing our true self. Most of us spend more time working than in any other activity in life — even more than sleeping. My hope is that this book gives you the tools to create joyful, abundant, and sustainable work that embodies love and compassion — for yourself and for the whole world.
What Is Liberation-Based Livelihood?
To practice Right Livelihood, you have to find a way to earn your living without transgressing your ideals of love and compassion. The way you support yourself can be an expression of your deepest self, or it can be a source of suffering for you and others. Our vocation can nourish our understanding and compassion, or erode them. We should be awake to the consequences, far and near, of the way we earn our living.
— Thich Nhat Hanh
The essence of Buddhism, as I understand it, is about freedom from suffering. The word "liberation" turns up over and over in Buddhist texts, but you don't have to be a Buddhist to want to be free. If you drill down deep into your own life, you'll begin to see how many of your choices are driven by a desire to free yourself from suffering.
The problem is that our attempts to end our pain can often lead us into more suffering. Not that we intend it that way! Without some kind of contemplative practice and the insights that come from it, it's easy to engage in not-so-helpful strategies like avoidance or addictive behaviors that may offer some short-term relief but actually perpetuate our unhappiness.
Most of us spend the majority of our time each week engaged in our work, and we give it a large portion of our vital energy. According to a 2016 survey from the Harvard School of Public Health, nearly half of working adults in the United States say that their current job affects their physical health, but only twenty-eight percent of those believe that the effect is a good one. People with disabilities, and in dangerous or low-paying jobs, are most likely to say their jobs have a negative impact on their stress levels, eating habits, and sleeping patterns.
When we're unhappy in a job, that suffering permeates every aspect of our life. Conversely, when we're doing work that we love, it has a profoundly positive impact on the rest of our life (and the people around us).
When I reflect on my work history over these past decades, I can clearly see how some jobs brought me joy while others I suffered through — sometimes a little and sometimes a great deal. (This is an exploration you'll undertake when you do the "Mining for Gold" exercise in chapter 4.) Before I had a mindfulness practice, my tendency was to escape the dissatisfaction I felt in one job by jumping into another without giving much thought to what was going on inside me. Not surprisingly, I often ended up feeling equally miserable in the next job. It might take a month, it might take a year, but I'd find myself in the same predicament. Worse yet, I couldn't understand why.
The attempts I made to figure out this dilemma through things like career counseling and aptitude tests were of limited help because they only tapped into one layer of my personality.
Mindful awareness has helped me to understand that real change takes place primarily at the level of our mind-set and beliefs. We may try modifying external conditions only to discover that nothing has truly changed, as I learned from all my job-hopping. Freedom is an inside job: that's the fundamental principle of this book.
Excerpted from "Work That Matters"
Copyright © 2017 Maia Duerr.
Excerpted by permission of Parallax Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Pamela Slim 8
How to Use This Book 12
Part I Foundations 16
Chapter 1 A Love Story about Work 18
Chapter 2 What Is Liberation-Based Livelihood? 26
Chapter 3 Three Building Blocks of Transformation 34
1 Returning to This Very Moment 36
2 Leveraging Adversity 44
3 Staying the Course 46
Part II The 6 Keys to Liberation-Based Livelihood 50
Chapter 4 Key 1: Become Intimate with Your Core Intention 52
Chapter 5 Key 2: Value Your Gifts and Time 74
Chapter 6 Key 3: Break Through Inertia and Take Action 92
Chapter 7 Key 4: Make Friends with Uncertainty 106
Chapter 8 Key 5: Think Big and Make the Most of Your Resources 118
Chapter 9 Key 6: Build a Circle of Allies and Ask for Help 134
Part III Navigational Tools 148
Chapter 10 Craft Your Personal Mission Statement 150
Chapter 11 Strategies and Tools for Navigating the Three Pathways to Liberation-Based Livelihood 164
1 Plan Your Exit Strategy 166
2 Love the Job You've Got 171
3 Create Work That You Love 182
Chapter 12 Create Your Personal Action Plan 196
Conclusion: True Freedom through Work That Matters 208
A Loving Kindness Practice 224
B Guide to Creating a Personal Retreat 227
C Treasure Hunting Letter Example 232
About the Author 237